Three ways to getting your first customer on a marketplace

July 21, 2020

Having two sides on a marketplace makes it all more complicated, here's how to get your first paying customer.

A few years back, when I was just launching MentorCruise and was trying to get it off the ground, I read a post on Twitter that verbatim said:

If you can’t get someone to pay for your product within the first month, shut it down.

Today, I know that this quote is flawed in many ways, but even more so for marketplaces. Meanwhile, I was trying to get my marketplace off the ground, and probably didn’t have a paying customer in my second or third month – welp.

Getting your marketplace off the ground isn’t easy, I think we have established that. What’s discussed way less is how hard it is to get someone to open their wallets for you. As a marketplace, you need three main components to give people the confidence to pay:

  1. Social Proof: Reviews, Testimonials & Case Studies that show that you do what you promise
  2. Supply: Enough selection for the buyer to choose from
  3. Scope: Buyer needs to know exactly what they’ll get for the money

While we’ve put a lot of time discussing 2 and 3, number 1 is impossible: There’s no social proof when you’re just starting, and that’s what you need to counteract.

Over the years, I’ve found three main ways to doing so.

The concierge method

In the early days, I required folks to sign up or at least to leave their e-mail address in order to gain full access to the mentoring marketplace. This meant that I was able to track their progress when browsing the marketplace, and was ready to send them an email if something went wrong.

I did this manually at first, then automated it: On the third day after they signed up, I sent a casual, friendly email:

Hey x,
Thanks for signing up for MentorCruise the other day. Just wanted to see how it’s going and whether you were able to find someone that suits you? If not, I am happy to help out. Just let me know what you are looking for!

This was my highest converting email at that time, because it felt genuine, people had showed a strong signal that they were remotely interested, and the timeframe seemed to be good as well.

I would help people manually to find their perfect match, and offer them their money back if it didn’t work out. Today, this resulted in better filters and a waterproof trial period and money-back guarantee, but at the start, having me there as an advisor led me to my first $100s in MRR.

The giveaway strategy

This is certainly no cheap way to go, but as a marketplace, social proof and word of mouth are super important. If you’re struggling with getting people to sign up, running an initial promotion could be the way to go. You could leverage lifetime deals, giveaways or simply give things away for free for a week, in return for a rating and/or testimonial.

The reason for that is that nobody wants to buy from an empty marketplace. Sure, you could fake ratings and testimonials, but other than the obvious ethical implications, it also just leaves a bad image for folks that know how big/small your marketplace is.

Instead, run a promotion and aim to get a handful of testimonials, ratings and even feedback videos from a small circle of folks. You’re looking for early adopters who are ready to have their face public in return of a free product.

Saas-ify me

With quite a margin the easiest way to go is to structure your UX and buying experience like a classic SaaS for the first few customers. That means that instead of being an artist marketplace, you are a simple “get a personal art piece for $99“ website. That allows you to distribute the initial orders to all your suppliers, removes the choice conundrum for your customers, and overall makes things easier for you, since you can summarize all ratings and pieces of feedback for your “service“, instead of splitting it up for each supplier.

That being said, your suppliers likely won’t be happy to be so invisible in the background. It’s important to be open here, make sure everyone is on the same page and make sure that folks are getting paid and their ratings are for them. At some point, you just flick the switch and go to being a proper marketplace.